We often know what it isn’t. But, do we know what it is?
What does it mean to be professional?
The Merriam-Webster definition of professionalism is "the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person"; and it defines a profession as "a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation." Great. While this definition tells us what the word means, it doesn’t do much to help us understand what qualities, traits and characteristics are displayed by a professional. One can certainly possess specialized knowledge and skills in a particular discipline, which may qualify one as a professional in that discipline, but what does it mean to be professional, or display professionalism?
A large part of being perceived as a professional has to do with the way you behave toward and present yourself to others. This can entail everything from the simple to the sublime. Possessing the following characteristics, or developing them, will go a long way toward establishing yourself as a true professional, regardless of what your profession – or your job – entails (in no particular order):
Honor Your Commitments. If you make a promise to your boss, co-workers, or clients, keep it. If you won't be able to meet the deadline, produce a report or fill another job task, let your boss, co-worker or client know as soon as possible.
Be Honest. Tell the truth and be upfront about where things stand. Don’t exaggerate your knowledge, skills or abilities. Don’t lie about why you can’t come to work, or finish a project.
Be On Time: Showing up late, whether for work or meetings, says you don't care about your job and don’t respect the time and effort of others.
Be Reliable and Consistent. Do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it (see Honor Your Commitments). You want people to be able to depend on you.
Be Competent. Be good at what you do, and rather than letting your skills or knowledge become outdated, always strive to keep current in your area of expertise, whatever that may be.
Stay Focused on Work. Don’t let your private life interfere with your job. Don’t spend time at work attending to personal matters. Don’t air your dirty laundry at work. While confiding in a close friend at work is usually okay, sharing too much information with the entire office is not. Be careful who you talk to, especially when discussing problems with your significant other or family.
Don't Gossip: While you may be tempted to tell your co-workers what you heard about Suzy or Sam down the hall, gossiping makes you look like a middle school student. If you know something that simply must be shared, tell someone who has nothing to do with your workplace, like your sister, brother or best friend. And if the "gossip" is vicious? Think about just forgetting it and let it go.
Be Accountable. When something goes wrong, don’t look for ways to avoid blame or pass it off on someone else. Taking responsibility for a mistake -- and then learning from it – is a true mark of a professional.
Support Others. Share the spotlight with co-workers, take the time to show others how to do things properly, and lend an ear when necessary.
Be Humble. If you're unsure how to perform a task, ask for help. If you're too proud to take direction or criticism, you're putting pride ahead of the good of the team and the health of your career.
Communicate with Care. Avoiding comments that make others uncomfortable or undervalued is expected, of course, but true professionals also grasp the soft communication skills, as well. For example, when you give feedback, be careful to do it in a way that will be helpful and constructive, rather than belittling. Listen to input from others even when you think you know best; you may learn something!
Dress Appropriately: Not every job requires a suit and tie. Whether you have to be "business formal" or you can wear more casual clothes, your appearance should always be neat and clean. A wrinkled suit looks no better than a ripped pair of jeans. Wear the type of clothing your employer requires or desires. Revealing clothing is a no-no in probably 95% of workplaces. Flip flops, shorts and lingerie strap tops should be saved for the weekends.
Fight Fair: It’s a fact that you will occasionally have disagreements with your co-workers, or maybe even your boss. You might think that something should be done one way, while someone else thinks it should be done another way. No matter how upset you are or how strongly you believe you are right, screaming isn't allowed, nor is name calling or door slamming. Calmly explain your opinion and be ready to walk away if the other person can't be swayed or if he or she begins to lose control.
Be Kind. Treating others with patience and respect enables constructive criticism and stronger relationships. Treat others as you'd like to be treated.
Be Prepared. True professionals are always prepared. This requires planning, timeliness, and attention to detail. Focus on improving your time management and planning skills, so that you're always in control.
No list is exhaustive, and this one certainly isn’t either. However, it’s a fair bet that displaying these attributes will ensure you’re seen as the professional you want to be.
Professionalism is at its core, I believe, a state of mind. If you don't have it now, you can achieve it, by selecting how you act and what you do, by simply deciding that you want it. Every job has value. If a job needs to be done, then it is worth doing. If it’s worth doing, it’s certainly worth doing well. Conducting oneself professionally is part and parcel of doing a job well.